Even in the more touristy and high-end areas Napoli (*) is not a meticulously maintained outdoor gallery in the way of northern Italian towns and cities. Unlike those cities, Napoli is not eminently Instragramable. No one could accuse Napoli of being a beauty queen. However, the city's geographical position overlooking the volcanic spectacle of Vesuvius and the Bay of Napoli, stretching out to glamorous Capri and the Amalfi Coast, might allow it to be a contender in the global pageant of cities. This beauty, combined with its difficult past as an often conquered are, its near decimation in the WWII and its suffering under the Camorra, lend the city an area of operatic drama.
(*) In this page I use the word “Napoli” which is closer to the original Greek name, "Νεάπολις", instead of “Naples”, which is the English name.
In the assault on the senses that is Napoli, it often feels like someone suddenly turned the volume way up. Neapolitani live life passionately and they live it out on the street.
Women of a certain age sit on their balconies or on cheap chairs directly outside their buildings to enjoy the theatre of life, either into groups or alone in silence... besides this is what we call "dulce far niente".
Merchants sing and shout as they peddle their wares. Children set up makeshift football pitches. Street artists paint striking murals. The devout build shrines to the Madonna.
On and around congested streets, iconic vespas transporting two or three helmetless teens go down tight back alleys laden with colorful laundry and pockmarked with satellite dishes; the aromatic scents of lemon granita, sweet sfoliatelle and wood-fired pizza linger in the air of this food paradise; dog owners walk their furry friends; and artists show off their watercolors on the roads outside lavish palazzos.
Everywhere there are contrasting elements of splendor and squalor, opulence and decay.
Naples is not for the faint of heart. As a city full of contradictions, you either fall in love with it or you detest it (I still have to find that person who detests it, though). People from the north may find it exotic, a place for holidays and pleasure for all senses, but others may find it annoying and crazy.
What is Napoli for me? You will find out as you continue reading.
Note: The moment I set foot in Napoli and got into a taxi, I thought how much this place looks like my city, Athens. But soon I realized that this city is much more overwhelming than Athens. Everything is more intense here, both the good and the bad things.
Things that may drive you nuts.
At first, the relentless disorder overwhelmed me, but, soon the vibrant, gritty city began to grow on me. It would be, though, a lie not to mention several things that drive me crazy.
(*) the photos I use in this chapter have been chosen to exorcise evil. Ιn Napoli, they believe in the evil eye.
The taxi driver from the airport, a very polite and talkative man in his early forties, overcharged us. I did not want to start my holidays with arguments, so I let it go: besides it was only 4€ more than the set price…not big deal, but the way he tried to justify his cheating made me think “oh yes Kostas, welcome to Napoli”.
A couple of days later, at a small café near Toledo Metro Station, they charged us 15€ for 3 double (doppio) espressos. When I asked the waiter how much a coffee costs, he told me “it is the servizio and all these”… please do not bullshit me because I come from the south and I am very familiar with all these cheating. Just to give you an idea, even at Napoli Airport (airports are infamous for high prices) they do not charge more than 2.5€ for a “doppio”.
I got off the train with two senior friends who had to use the elevator to go up from the tracks to the surface, instead of using the stairs (available for the fit ones). At the elevator wait the three of us and two young mothers with 5 noisy, spoiled children. The elevator arrives and we all get inside, but the doors do not close, most probably because we are over the limit which is 1,000kg (!!!). None of the mothers thought that the elevator is for those who cannot climb up stairs, in the contrary they believed that it is for young ladies and spoiled children. The result? We had to get out of the elevator and wait for the next one, as they did not even pretend giving priority to the ones in need.
The evening is very beautiful, we just had an excellent dinner at Pizzeria "Ntretella" and we decided to have some drink at the “Cambrinus Café”, as this famous cafe is very centrally located and just 10m from our apartment. We sat there for 40 minutes at least and no waiter came to ask us if we need something (isn’t it obvious that if one sits at a cafe he wants something to order?). There were at least four of them walking around and chatting to each other, but not looking further than their nose. We decided to leave. You may say these things do happen. Really?
In general, you should have in mind that service is slow. Life moves in its own way here, but this was too much.
I mention these four incidents not to put you off, just to let you know that it is mathematically certain it will happen to you too.
Should that spoil your holidays? No! Just accept it and try to think that this is part of life here, because you soon realize that Napoli is one of the most interesting and beautiful (in its splendid decadence) cities in the world. Most probably it has the richest history of all cities in Europe and certainly one of the best cuisines and people are very friendly and cheerful.
Note: Italy has the longest tradition in tourism than any other country. North Europeans visit the Napoli area since the mid-18th century. Therefore, one should expect the services available here are the best. Alas, no! The services are made this way for the tourist to pay as much as possible, if he is not determined to search around a bit. And I am not referring to luxury, first class tourism, but to middle class and lower end tourists like me.
Private tour agents are everywhere and ready to charge you double and triple as much as the public services charge you. The official information centers or ticket services are well hidden from the tourist and offer a rather poor service. Instead, you see big “Tourist information” signs (they bear the known to all international symbol for information which is the calligraphic letter “i”) or “Tickets” at the very best location of all touristic sites, which are just private travel agents or tour operators ready to lure you.
In general, I believe that public services are left at this poor state on purpose. Is that to help private initiative? Is that free market? Is that Capitalism? NO. It is mafia-like conception of life.
Of course, some people may find it convenient as in this way they have peace in mind, just use these agents and sit back and relax.
Arriving to Napoli.
Napoli is only a two hours (maximum) flight from almost every part of Europe and it is well connected with all big cities. This makes it an easy reachable destination. Actually, this is the reason I decided to visit it now: Aegean Airways recently started non-stop daily flights from Athens. The Capodichino Napoli International Airport is located in the north-eastern suburbs of the city, only 6-8km from the city center.
Even though the airport is located in the city limits, there is no underground (metro) system servicing it (oh well, this is Napoli!). That leaves the visitor with only two choices: taxi and bus.
A. There is an organized shuttle service from the Airport to the city center, called Alibus. The bus goes every 20 to 30 minutes daily, from 6.30 AM to 11.40 PM. The ticket costs 3 euros if bought at a newspaper stand (Tabacchi) and 4 euros if purchased from the driver in cash, directly on the bus. You have to validate the ticket in the electronic ticket machine on the bus. There are only two stops in the city: Piazza Garibaldi-Central Train Station (journey time15-20 min), and Piazza Municipio-Molo Beverello Port (by the ferry/cruise terminal) (30-35 min).
Bus departure and arrival point is at the bus station just outside the terminal building, some 50 meters from the entrance to the airport.
On the way back to the airport, the bus departs from the port (Molo Beverello) in front of the ferry ticket booths, and from the Central Train Station, on the north side of Piazza Garibaldi.
B. Taxis are available from Naples airport and they offer fixed rates (you have to ask for these rates the moment you enter the taxi – “tariffa predeterminate”) for main destinations within the city center (Piazza Municipio, Molo Beverello, Mergellina, etc.). The cost from the airport to e.g. Piazza Municipio is 21 euros and the luggage is included. It costs 18 euros to Central Train Station. You will find taxis at the taxi stand in front of arrivals area. Be aware, the fixed rates include everything; you should not pay an extra cent of what is written on the rates list displayed in the taxi. Alternative, you can ask for a metered fare. But, believe me, I would never do that in Napoli. I am sure I would be ripped off.
Central Napoli retains its roman and medieval plan with narrow streets and it is restrained between the Capodimonte Hill in the north, the Vomero hill in the west and Palloneto Hill and the port in the south.
The cobbled and uphill streets make walking tiring, but walking is the best way to explore the city, as public transportation is not that great.
Metro line 1 is the only one that may have some interest to tourists, as well as the 3 funicular lines climbing up Vomero hill.
Metro line 1 is the only one that may have some interest to tourists, as well as the 3 funicular lines climbing up Vomero hill.
Buses are more useful, but you need a mobile application to be able to move around on them: I use “moovit” free app for android wherever I travel on this planet and I am very satisfied.
Even though there is a complicated variety of means of urban transportation, the good thing is that they all run by the same agency: ANM (Azienda Napolitana Mobilita) and all accept the same tickets. The best way is to buy some single tickets (corsa singola) and have them handy. Single tickets are cheap (1.10€) and are valid for 90 minutes after you validate them on board the buses or before entering the metro/funicular.
I decided to add this section because I have read/heard so much about security in Napoli from "hysterical tourists".
Indeed, Napoli is infamous because of the organized crime, but this does not touch tourists.
Of course, there is poverty in the city and places can be very crowded so “confused looking” tourists are easy targets for the pick pocketers. So, reasonable precautions apply, like in every big city.
Personally, I had no problems at all while there and never felt any threats.
What really surprises the visitor is that Napoli looks like a city under siege by police and the military. Everywhere you go you see armed policemen or heavy armed military people. What makes it more confusing or more colorful is the variety of these men and women in uniforms you see in the streets.
And here comes the useless information of this section:
Law and order in Italy is the responsibility of five national police forces, and two local police forces. Together, these organizations employ over 300,000 officers, the highest number employed by any of the countries in the European Union.
The two local forces are: Provincial Police (Polizia Provinciale) and Municipal Police (Polizia Municipale) also known as 'Polizia Comunale', 'Polizia Urbana' or 'Vigili Urbani'.
The five national forces are: State Police (Polizia di Stato), Finance Police (Guardia di Finanza), Military Police (Arma dei Carabinieri), Prison Police (Polizia Penitenziaria) and Forestry Police (Corpo Forestale dello Stato). There is an additional organisation, called The 'Direzione Investigativa Antimafia' (DIA) (Anti-Mafia Investigation Department) which is a cooperative venture between all five of the police forces which is charged with tackling organised crime.
The most “fascinating” of all is that besides the police, the army has also deployed heavily armed men and women (“Esercito”) in the streets since 2008 according to the program “safe streets”. The "Safe Streets" Operation started after the promulgation of the Law that authorizes "the employment of a military contingent of the Armed Forces in specific and extraordinary circumstances to prevent criminality”.
My reasonable question is how all these different agencies cooperate and coordinate! One friend told me: “simply, they don’t”.
None of these are of course any tourist’s business and may none of us ever need any help besides asking directions for how go to a tourist attraction.
The north and the south.
Since I have spent both of my 2016 & 2017 summer holidays in the very north of Italy, it is plausible to compare the life in the north and in the south of the country.
I will avoid stereotypes and I will stick to these two conclusions, which are the result of long, laborious, scientific observations of passers-by while sitting at a street cafe or pizzeria. Actually, these two conclusions are very closely related to each other:
#1. People in the north are (or they just look) very fit. The majority have slender figures and the number of cyclists you see everywhere (even on the top of the mountains) is overwhelming. It is not surprising that La Madonna del Ghisallo, the patroness of cyclists, is located on a hill in Magreglio, close to Lake Como. In contrary, in Napoli you scarcely see any cyclists, and those you see use an electric bicycle! Most locals have tummies and some extra kilos, as obviously they do not waste their money in fitness centers.
# 2. There is no street food in the north. You may starve to death if you happen to be in the wrong place the wrong time, unless you are prepared to sit at one of the cafes and eat an overpriced, blunt panino. The very few bakeries available close at one o’clock in the afternoon and reopen after four o’clock! In the contrary, in the south there is street food everywhere. Rich, tasty street food. The only problem here is that you do not know what to choose ...and you end up eating all the time.
Napoli is a big city. One needs several days to walk around it's center. There are so many places to visit in the city and you will feel soon overwhelmed.
My advice is to stick only to the most important attractions of the city, otherwise you will end up stressed not being able to visit everything and exhausted.
Besides, the best attraction of a city is its people, its aromas and its colors, not the palazzi, the churches and the museums.
I will portray here some of the places I visited, which are the most important of all as my experience has shown. I have included almost all into three walks.
Walk 1 : the south part of the city (coastal central Napoli)
Walk 2 : Medieval Napoli
Walk 3 : Vomero area
Walk No 1
Via Chiaia and Pallonetto
I was lucky (or should I say clever?) to book a room in Via Chiaia. Via Chiaia is one of the two central pedestrianized commercial streets in central Napoli.
The other one is Via Toledo. Walking around these two streets is a pleasure itself. There are so many shops, cafés and restaurants here and always full of cheerful people.
The two streets meet at piazza Trieste e Trento around which stand the “must-see”: Teatro San Carlo (the Opera House of Napoli); Galleria Umberto I (elegant, glass-and-iron covered gallery built in the late 19th century, housing shops & cafes); Piazza del Plebiscito (pedestrianized landmark square with equestrian statues), home to the neo-classical Palazzo Reale di Napoli (a 17th century palace with period furnishings, a home theatre & lavish ballroom) and Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola (a Pantheon-style church filled with sculpture & paintings); and Castel Nuovo, medieval fortress with 5 towers & a Renaissance triumphal arch, plus civic art museum & chapel.
® We’ll start our walk from Via Chiaia, the famous street that starts at Piazza del Plebiscito (where the famous Gran Caffè Gambrinus is), continues under the Ponte di Chiaia (the overhead roadway arch), then to Parrocchia Santa Maria Della Mercede to Pallazo Cellamare (located on the curve of the street) and ends at a small tree canopy, that casts thick shade on street cafés and geleterie.
® At Ponte di Chiaia there is a public (free) elevator that brings you up to Pizzofalcone Hill. The elevator is rather hided away if you do not know its existence. It is located just under the arch on your left hand coming from Piazza del Plebiscito. This is the easiest and fastest way to visit the neighborhood on the hill called Pallonetto, which is the oldest part of Napoli (actually it existed before Napoli itself). There are of course stairs and steep roads going up from several points around the hill, but it is not that easy, especially for older residents.
In 2009 started the construction of (another) passenger elevator that will connect via Santa Lucia (at sea level) with the top of Mt. Echia. The idea of actually connecting the sea-level sections of Santa Lucia with the top of the hill so residents could get up and down easily instead of walking the long way around was not a bad one. All it would take is a single elevator shaft and a bit of time. But, alas! This is Napoli. Ten years after the begging of works, one can see only the two neglected construction sites, standing there like two huge wounds on the hill’s fragile body. The project seems to have stopped.
Today, Pizzofalcone's prominence is obscured by the modern square blocks of tall buildings added to the city during the Risanamento (urban renewal) in 1900 between Mt. Echia and the sea as well as the very large buildings now built on the hill, itself.
The Nunziatella military academy, a huge red/pink building seems to stand out the most. Another, also red building, Caserma Nino Bixio stands at the very southern tip of Monte Echia.
Yet, before there was Castel dell' Ovo, and even before there were Romans in Napoli, this place supported a prehistoric population and was the hill upon which the Greeks later built their city, Parthenope, which then merged with the late-comer, Neapolis (Napoli).
In Roman times, Monte Echia encompassed the famous villa of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who added the expression "Lucullan splendor" to our vocabularies. His villa and gardens extended down the side of the hill to the waters in front of the isle of Megaride, where the Castel dell' Ovo would later stand.
The rock that Mt. Echia is made of is the classic yellow Neapolitan tuff, the most widely used of all building materials in Naples. The inside of the hill is honeycombed with quarries, caves, aqueducts and tunnels both old and new. These underground spaces include everything from the Greek cavern and Temple of Mithra to the modern Vittoria Tunnel (1929).
® At the end of Via Chiaia, under the shady canopy, we had our first coffee in Napoli at Sugar Queen.
® Leave Via Chiaia back and walk towards Piazza dei Martiri.
If you have time, it is worthwhile to turn right (instead of going ahead) to Via Gaetano Filangieri and then Via dei Mille till Piazza Amedeo, where one of the three funiculars going up to Vomero neighborhood has its lower station. The area around these streets and all the way down to Riviera di Chiaia (at the north of the large seaside park known as the Villa Comunale) is an upscale and posh neighborhood. There are galleries, upscale restaurants and expensive boutique shops and designers’ shops.
Monumento ai Martiri Napoletani in the center of Piazza dei Martiri was built around a column already standing since the Bourbon period, when the square was called Piazza della Pace. The column was repurposed, and atop now stands a bronze statue depicting the Virtue of the Martyrs. Four lions stand at the corners of the square base, each represent Neapolitan patriots who died during specific anti-Bourbon revolutions:
a) Lion dying - to fallen defending the short lived Parthenopean Republic in 1799.
b) Lion pierced by a sword- to fallen during Carbonari revolution of 1820.
c) Lion lying down - to fallen during revolution of 1848, with 1848 statutes under paw.
d) Lion striding on foot - to fallen during successful Garibaldini Revolt of 1860.
Behind this last lion is a tablet that states: « Alla gloriosa memoria dei cittadini napoletani che caduti nelle pugne o sul patibolo rivendicarono al popolo la libertà di proclamare con patto solenne ed eterno il plebiscito del XXI ottobre MDCCCLX. Il Municipio Consacra».
® Exit the triangular square to Via Calabritto, do some window-shopping at Armani, Ferragamo and Valentino and continue to the seafront, thru Piazza Vittoria.
On your right starts the long Villa Comunale park, that stretches for more than a kilometer along the shore. This is a great place for walking and jogging.
Castel Dell' Ovo and Santa Lucia
® Instead of going right, turn left on Via Partenope and enjoy the best views of Castel Dell’ Ovo and Capri island (weather permitting). On this seaside avenue were built all the big and luxurious hotels at the turn of the 20th century.
At the end of Via Partenope and opposite Fontana del Gigante, stands Hotel Excelsior built at the beginning of the 20th century.
At this hotel lodge Katherine and Alex Joyce (played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) in Rossellini’s 1954 masterpiece “Viaggio in Italia” (Journey to Italy). The film is a tribute to 50’s Napoli.
® Before reaching Fontana del Gigante (a monumental white stone fountain designed in the 17th century by Pietro Bernini) there’s no way to miss one of the two seaside castles of central Napoli, Castel dell’ Ovo.
Castel dell'Ovo is an impressive seaside castle located on the former island of Megaride (now an artificially made peninsula).
The castle's name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in the Middle Ages as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for Napoli would have followed.
The Castel dell' Ovo is the oldest standing fortification in Napoli. The island of Megaride was where Greek colonists from Cumae founded the original nucleus of the city in the 6th century BC.
Its location affords it an excellent view of the Napoli waterfront and the surrounding area. In the 1st century BC the Roman patrician Lucius Licinius Lucullus built the magnificent villa Castellum Lucullanum on the site. Fortified by Valentinian III in the mid-5th century, it was the site to which the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was exiled in 476. Eugippius founded a monastery on the site after 492.
The remains of the Roman-era structures and later fortifications were demolished by local residents in the 9th century to prevent their use by Saracen raiders. The first castle on the site was built by the Normans in the 12th century. Roger the Norman, conquering Naples in 1140, made Castel dell' Ovo his seat. The importance of the castle began to decline when king Charles I of Anjou built a new castle, Castel Nuovo, and moved his court there. Castel dell' Ovo became the seat of the Royal Chamber and of the State Treasury. It also served as a prison. Some famous prisoners were: Empress Constance of Holy Roman Empire (1191), who became Queen of Sicily one year later; King Conradin (1268) was imprisoned here before his trial and execution; and Queen Joanna I of Napoli (1381) was also imprisoned here before her final assassination.
The current appearance dates from the Aragonese domination (15th century). It was struck by French and Spanish artillery during the Italian Wars; in the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 its guns were used by rebels to deter the philo-Bourbon population of the city.
In the 19th century a small fishing village called Borgo Marinaro, which is still extant, developed around the castle's eastern wall. It is now known for its marina and restaurants.
After a long period of decay, the site got its current appearance during an extensive renovation project started in 1975.
® Continue on Via Nazario Sauro and enjoy the stanning view of Vesuvius and the Gulf of Napoli. When you reach Statue d'Umberto I turn sharply left and after a couple of blocks you are in Via Santa Lucia.
® Turn on the left and on a small alley, perpendicular to Via Santa Lucia (Via Vincenzo de Giovanni di Santa Severina) and opposite Conad City supermarket, you see a small trattoria called “A’ Tiella e patrizia e Ninona”. If it is to have only one full lunch in Napoli, this is the place. A genius traditional Sicilian trattoria with excellent food at low prices. Choose the fixed price Menu and for 15€ you have primo, secondo and coffee. The restaurant is really tiny, no more than 25 seats inside. Locals come here during their lunch break and families enjoy their dinner in an atmosphere where the room with tables and the kitchen are practically all one not by choice, but out of necessity. The only drawback, is the bad ventilation in the restaurant and expect you to smell like fried squid afterwards. When the weather is good try to get one of the 5-6 tables they have on a patio by the street, as we did during our visit. Staff is sufficiently courteous and friendly. We promised to come back, but alas we did not have time. Next time we are in Napoli for sure.
® Continue on via Santa Lucia towards the east and the Giardini del Molosiglio. On your right hand you’ll see the Basilica of Santa Lucia a Mare.
The church is so called because it was once a few steps from the beach. The legent says that it was founded by a nephew of the emperor Constantine. It belonged to the Basilian monks (monks who follow the rule of Saint Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea) who had a convent on the nearby islet of Megaride, where today is Castel dell' Ovo and later the church passed to the nuns of Santa Patrizia, a female branch of the same order. It was largely restored and modified in 1588 by the will of the abbess Eusebia Minadoa.
In 1845, the reorganization of the urban area and the landfills caused the burial of the original structure, on which the present temple was built. The new church bombed in 1943 during the Second World War and rebuilt soon after.
Saint Lucia is the protector of the eyes, of the blind, eye doctors, electricians and masons.
There is also a common popular exclamation in Italy, "Oh Santa Lucia!" when you have been long looking for something which is actually under your nose and you finally find it.
So, it is not much of a surprise that in 1957 the church was visited by a famous pilgrim: Totò, afflicted by a serious visual disturbance that prevented him from working; after a few months of treatment, his eyes improved so much that he allowed the actor to go back to acting in front of the camera.
Piazza del Plebiscito
® At the end of Via Santa Lucia, turn left uphill at Via Cesario Console and walk towards the emblematic Piazza del Plebiscito, the vast open square on the west side of the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale).
On the east side of stands the large basilica of San Francesco di Paola directly across from the palace. With its impressive dome, temple-like entrance (pronaos) and semicircular portico supported by 38 Doric columns, the church is one of the “postcard icons” of the city and one of the most impressive structures in Italy. The church built in 1816 based in plans by king Murat to build a Parthenon-like tribute to his boss, Napoleon Bonaparte. Before that it was the site of two churches, the church of San Luigi di Palazzo and the church of the Santo Spirito, with relatively easy access across what was then called “Largo del Palazzo” (Palace Square, referring to the Royal Palace).
In front of the church, in the middle of the square stand two big equestrian statues of Charles III and his son, Ferdinand.
This impressive square did not look anything like what it looks today. In 1994 they decided to converted it from a gigantic parking lot into a grand square for people to walk around in. The public reaction to that change was favorable, even from those who had to find somewhere else to park their cars. Since that time the square has served as a playground, a parade ground, a venue for all kinds of celebrations and music events.
The Palazzo Reale
The Palazzo Reale stands on the site of an earlier residence, which had housed the former viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo, Marquis of Villafranca. The palace has its main façade on Piazza del Plebiscito, but the most impressive side is the southern one overlooking the Bay of Napoli.
At the main façade are displayed in niches a series of statues of prominent rulers of Napoli since the foundation of the Kingdom of Napoli in the 12th century. The statues are displayed in chronological order, based on the dynasty of each ruler. The series starts with Roger the Norman followed by Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Charles I of Anjou (Angiò), Alfonse of Aragon, Emperor Charles V, Charles III of Bourbon (Spain), Joachim (Gioacchino) Murat and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, the tallest statue and the last to be added.
Palazzo Reale was one of the four residences near Napoli used by the Bourbon Kings during their rule of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1734-1860): the others were the palaces of Caserta, Capodimonte overlooking Napoli, and the third Portici, on the slopes of Vesuvius.
The building conceived by Ferdinando Ruiz de Castro, Count of Lemos, Spanish viceroy in Napoli (1599-1603), to be a residence for King Phillip III of Spain, who was planning a visit to the city. The architect chosen was Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). The building was put up on the site of the older Spanish vice-royal residence.
Since then, the building has undergone several additions and changes.
Today, the palace and adjacent grounds house the famous Teatro San Carlo, the smaller Teatrino di Corte, the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III, a museum, and offices, including those of the regional tourist board.
Teatro San Carlo
Teatro San Carlo, the most ancient opera house in the world, is part of the royal palace complex and its main entrance on Via San Carlo is just across Galleria Umberto I.
“Do you wish to know whether a spark of this devouring flame inspires you? then run, fly to Naples and listen to the masterpieces of Leo, Durante Jommelli and Pergolesi”. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique)
The foundation of this shrine to Italian opera precedes the Scala theatre in Milano by 41 years and the Fenice theatre in Venezia by 55 years. It was in 1737 that the first king of Bourbon, Charles III became the promoter of a project that combined magnificence with amazement and became a clear sign of his power: a theatre! It was the architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano, the Spanish colonel brigadier stationed in Napoli, who was responsible for the design. Medrano's design was of a hall (28.6 x 22.5 m) with 184 boxes distributed in six tiers and a Royal box for ten people. A total amount of 1379 seats.
The opening evening was celebrated with the performance of ‘Achilles in Sciro’ by Pietro Metastasio, with music by Domenico Sarro and 'two dances as an intermezzo' created by Grossatesta and scenes by Pietro Righini. At that time, women used to play the main character of operas, so Achilles was interpreted by Vittoria Tesi, called "La Moretta".
On the night of February 13th 1816, a fire destroyed a large part San Carlo theatre in less than an hour. The only parts of the building to survive the fire were the external masonry walls. The restoration was carried on in only nine months, was directed by Antonio Niccolini who re-made the theater by keeping its previous main features.
“The first impression is that you have been transported to the palace of an oriental emperor. Your eyes are dazzled, your soul enraptured...” (Stehdhal, Rome, Naples et Florence, 1817).
The Tuscan architect, in fact, kept the horseshoe shape of the boxes and the proscenium configuration, just adding the wonderful clock with the low-relief of the 'Time and the Hours' that we can still admire. The center of the ceiling was decorated with a painting of Apollo introducing the greatest poets in the world to Minerva. The restoration of San Carlo Theatre was completed by the side facade made. As official architect of the royal theatres, Niccolini will also coordinate the next works of maintenance and restoration. Among these activities we remember the modernization of 1844.
The foyer we can see nowadays, in the eastern wing of the Royal Palace, was built in 1937 upon a design of Michele Platanìa. It was completely destroyed in 1943 by a bomb and rebuilt immediately after the war.
Piazza Municipio & Castel Nuovo
® Some meters down Via San Carlo, after the Royal Gardens, you enter to the heart of the city, the Piazza Municipio.
The importance of Piazza Municipio (City Hall Square) goes back to the late 13th century, when the ‘Maschio Angioino’ (Castel Nuovo) was built. The castle and area around it thus became the symbol of authority. Besides the castle, a new harbor was built directly in front of the castle. Later, the Aragonese and then the Spanish expanded the fortifications, such that, at its height, the castle housed the royal armory, foundry and the corps of the Royal Guards, taking up most of the present-day square. In the late 19th century, the urban renewal of Napoli started to shape to the area around the castle and transform it into the Piazza Municipio we see today.
Much of the transformation had to do with enlarging the port area and building new facilities for shipping. The final touch in that transformation didn’t come until the construction of the new Maritime Passenger Terminal in 1939. This imposing building is one of the several fine architecture examples of the Fascist regime. The Maritime Passenger Terminal, together with the central Post Office building at Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, are two of the architectonic masterpieces of that time.
The most characteristic feature of the impressive Castel Nuovo, was built during the reign of Aragonese Alfonso I who, like his predecessors, used the Castel Nuovo as the royal residence. On the outside walls, between the Torre di Mezzo (Halfway Tower) and the Torre di Guardia (Watch Tower) the impressive Triumphal Arch was built to celebrate his victorious entry into the city of Napoli.
Over the years, the castle was surrounded by buildings of all kinds, warehouses and houses, and this happened time and time again. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Municipal Council began the work of isolating the castle from the annexed buildings in recognition of the historical and monumental importance of the fortress and the need to reclaim the piazza in front of it. The castle is today the venue of cultural events and also houses the Municipal Museum.
Today the area on the east of the castle and the lower part of the Piazza Municipio is inaccessible due to extensive works for building a new metro station.
Palazzo San Giacomo (Municipio) & Fontana del Nettuno
On the north of the square stands he Palazzo San Giacomo, known as the Municipio (city hall). This Neoclassical style palace houses the mayor and the offices of the municipality. The entire office complex spans from Largo de Castello to Via Toledo, along via di San Giacomo.
In 1816, King Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies commissions the construction of a centralized building to house the various ministries of the government. The area for this palace was chosen, and the buildings therein were either demolished or incorporated including the monastery and church of the Concezione, the Hospital of San Giacomo, and the offices of the Bank of San Giacomo. The church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli was incorporated into the palace. Work was only completed in 1825. In the atrium are two statues of Kings Ruggiero the Norman and Frederick of Swabia. The statues of the Bourbon Kings, Ferdinand I and Francesco I of the Two Sicilies, that once stood in niches here, were substituted by allegorical figures. The entry way also has a head from a bust which has been assigned to the mythical representative of Naples, the siren Parthenope.
In the middle of the square stands the Fontana del Nettuno. The fountain is circular and surrounded by a balustrade. Water flows from four lions who hold shields with the symbols of Medina y de Carafa. Two sea monsters pour water in the central shell, adorned with dolphins and Tritons that also emit water. In the center, on a rock, two nymphs and two satyrs hold up a saucer that features a statue of Neptune with trident.
There are very few pieces of sculpture that have traveled as much as this one. This fountain was built in 1601 by the Arsenal. It was built on the order of Enrico de Guzman, the Spanish viceroy at the time and was situated so that it faced his residence.
In 1629, it was transported to Largo di Palazzo (now Piazza del Plebiscito), but since it hindered the festivals held in the plaza there, the fountain was again moved to Borgo Santa Lucia, near Castel dell' Ovo.
In 1638, it was again moved, this time to Largo delle Corregge, today Via Medina. During the revolt of Masaniello in 1647, the statue was damaged. Further damage occurred during the sacking of Napoli in 1672 by the Viceroy Pedro Antonio de Aragón.
In 1675, it underwent restoration and was moved to the Molo Grande.
This migratory fountain has continued to move through Naples: in 1886, it was dismantled, to reappear in 1889 in Piazza Plaza della Borsa (now Plaza Giovanni Bovio), where it stood till 2000, when she was returned to Via Medina to allow for work on the Napoli Metro. Indeed, they finished the station at Piazza Borsa in 2011, but instead of returning Neptune to that site, they put in its place a large statue of king Victor Emanuele II.
So, the decided to move it finally to Piazza Municipio after works for the metro station Municipio finish. Indeed in 2015, Napoli’s most travelled fountain is now in front of the city hall and Neptune stares down across the entire length of the still unfinished metro construction site to the main passenger terminal of the port of Naples. It's probably a better location since it's a pedestrian zone and you can now walk completely around the fountain and see it from all angles.
Galleria Umberto I
® Walk Via Giuseppe Verdi (the road in front of the City Hall) southbound and at Via Santa Brigida turn right and after some meters you see the northern entrance to Galleria Umberto I.
You can cross the Galleria from north to south and exit from the main entrance (south), directly across from the Teatro San Carlo (the Napoli Tourist Office is located at this exit), or after reaching the central hall you can turn right and exit to Via Toledo. Here at this exit you can stop for some tasty street food at ‘Passione Di Sofì’.
The Galleria Umberto in Naples is in the shape of a Crux immissa, that is, one in which the main, vertical beam sticks above the crossbeam. The Gallery is oriented almost precisely to the four cardinal points. The long "beam" is 138 meters long, while the shorter crossbeam is 108 meters long. They meet at a large space called the "crossing." If you stand in the middle of the crossing, the top of the dome is 57 meters above you. Where the sections of the cross meet at the central space, they form large surfaces at the NW, NE, SW and SE points. These are quite large and are entrances to the offices on the upper floors of the Gallery.
The Gallery was inaugurated in 1890, and named for Umberto I, who was king of Italy from 1878 until 1900 when he died at the hands of an assassin. Part of the Risanamento was also to renew the area across from San Carlo known as Santa Brigida, and this is how the Gallery was built. The Galleria Umberto was based on the design of the gallery in Milano completed in 1865; yet, it was a more aesthetic fusion of the industrial glass and metal of the upper part and the masonry below, which, itself, is a spectacular collage of Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation, tapering off to clean smoothness of marble at the ground concourse.
The Galleria looks a bit neglected and much of it has scaffolding or is shrouded in nets. The reality is that it is under slow renovation, Napoli style of renovation. The tragic reason for this renovation is because few years ago a chunk of masonry fell from the east entrance on via Toledo and struck and killed a teenager boy, a youngster who was out for a stroll with friends. When something like that happens, there is understandable public outrage. "Why can't the city maintain these buildings!?" is the common cry, and so the city starts another round of slow and underfunded repairs.
The cuisine of Napoli has a variety of dishes for any food lover. With flavors from the sea, and ingredients enhanced from the sun and soil. There’s something for every taste; seafood, slow-cooked, succulent, sweet, simple, fussed-over, fried, pasta and of course, pizza for the pizza lovers. The list is so long that makes it meaningless to try to name them, and certainly it is meaningless to try to eat everything while you are there. My advice: just pop into a restaurant that looks cozy to you, look around and order anything that you feel like eating at that very moment. No calculations, no hesitations.
You may end up having the same dish again and again because you came across your favorite dish. This is great, too. Do not stick to the “Italian dinner ritual”: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolce… This is bullshit. In Napoli a primo (first dish), which is mainly pasta, is big enough and fulfilling that may well play the role of the main and only dish you order. Even if you are a voracious and greedy person (when it comes to food) like me, do not forget that later, in the course of the day, you may see something in another place you want also to eat…so, leave some space in your stomach.
Food can be inexpensive in Napoli, but restaurants are not cheap, unless you stick to pizza, which is the cheapest dish on every menu. Antipasti are unreasonably expensive compared to the rest of the menu items.
But, do not forget Napoli is the street food paradise and for a couple of euros you can eat anything you want.
Pizza is certainly the queen of Neapolitan food. Sometimes I wonder if there is a single person on this planet who does not like pizza. Pizzerias are everywhere, in every single country, and they are very popular. On this matter, we should thank American-Italians, since the worldwide pizza craziness originates in America and from there spread over the planet, long before us the lucky ones visited Italy. You know where you can have the best pizza in New York, in London, in Tokyo, in your home town; but trust me, you have not tasted the real thing if have not visited Napoli!
Before coming to Napoli, I read every single article about where to find the best pizza in the city. During the first days of my holidays there, I was trying to find the pizzeria I had saved in my “favorite list” on Google maps. Then I realized, that there was not a single place, where the pizza was not good.
Of course, there are the usual suspects: the tourist traps.
The place where they sell the first ever baked pizza, the place where Bill Clinton slurped a “marinara”, the place where Julia Roberts decided to put some extra kilos, the place with the “I-do-not-know-what-marketing-has invented-this-time” pizza, etc, etc. Do not take me wrong.
These places also serve excellent pizzas, but why should I wait in long lines to get squeezed in small rooms and eat my pizza while having the guy behind me rubbing his back on my back, when I can have a marvelous pizza in a humble but cozy pizzeria in one of the narrow alleys in Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters)?
Pizza is the most popular and best-known creation of all Neapolitan cuisine. It soon became very popular among the people as well as barons or princes: it was present in the Bourbon court. King Ferdinand I experienced cooking pizza in Capodimonte's porcelain ovens.
After Italian unification, the new kings were also attracted by this southern food. The pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created in 1889, in honor to queen Margherita of Savoy, a “nationalistic pizza”, where the colors of the Italian flag were represented by the mozzarella (white), tomato (red) and basil (green). Since then this pizza is known as “pizza Margherita”.
Pizza can be cheap and nutritious, so it had great success very quickly. Sometimes pizza is made in home ovens, but the real pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired oven, hand-made by an able pizzaiolo who makes the dough disk thinner in the center and thicker in the outer part; the ingredients and olive oil are rapidly spread on the disk, and with a quick movement the pizza is put on the shovel and then slid in the oven where it is turned around a few times for uniform cooking.
Extra virgin olive oil on top of it after coming out of the oven makes a lot of difference and sometimes a sprinkle of Parmesan Cheese on top give the final “finish”. This style pizza gave rise to the New York-style pizza that was first made by Italian immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century.
Other variants are: pizza marinara, which is made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil and pizza Margherita DOP made with tomato, buffalo mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
Pizza Margherita is called “Pizza Napolitana” if the tomatoes used are San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the south of Mount Vesuvius, and mozzarella used is Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, a protected designation of origin cheese made with the milk from water buffalo raised in the marshlands of Campania and Lazio in a semi-wild state.
Pizza Napolitana is a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) product in Europe, the art of its making is included on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage. The TSG certification attests that a particular food product objectively possesses specific characteristics which differentiate it from all others in its category, and that its raw materials, composition or method of production have been consistent for a minimum of 30 years.
According to the rules proposed by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the genuine Neapolitan pizza dough consists of wheat flour (type 0 or 00, or a mixture of both), natural Neapolitan yeast or brewer's yeast, salt and water. For proper results, strong flour with high protein content (as used for bread-making rather than cakes) must be used. The dough must be kneaded by hand or with a low-speed mixer. After the rising process, the dough must be formed by hand without the help of a rolling pin or other machine and may be no more than 3 millimeters (0.12 in) thick. The pizza must be baked for 60–90 seconds in a 485 °C (905 °F) stone oven with an oak-wood fire. When cooked, it should be soft, elastic, tender and fragrant. WOW! No surprise, very few pizzerias serve pizza napolitana!
Where to eat pizza
The best pizzeria I visited in Napoli, is Pizzeria 'Ntretella in Quartieri Spagnoli (Vico Maddalenella degli Spagnoli, 19). The premises that host the "Pizzeria Friggitoria 'Ntretella” date back to the early twentieth century and housed a sawmill that worked wood with machinery and produced wooden artifacts. The old lamps, the original space configuration, walls made of tuff stone, all have been fully respected to leave unchanged the romantic atmosphere of the past.
Pizzeria 'Ntretella offers not only pizza but also other traditional Neapolitan dishes by using genuine ingredients of strictly controlled origin and seasonal vegetables grown by farmers in the hills of the Parco Regionale del Taburno, at Sant’Agata de’ Goti. If you go early (before 7 in the evening) for dinner you may be lucky and get one of the few tables located outside on a wooden platform. As the night falls, let the magic of Napoli seize your senses.
Besides 'pizza al porcino' and 'pizza marinara', at 'Ntretella we ordered some 'fritti di mare' (baccala fresco a trancetti) and 'fritti di terra' (chrocce di patate, arancino, fiori di zucca in pastella). We finished the wonderful dinner with 'delizia al limone di Amalfi', a dessert made of the famous Amalfi lemons, and coffee.
If it is to visit only one restaurant in Napoli, I strongly recomment "Pizzeria Friggitoria 'Ntretella”, which should not be confused with "Locanda ‘Ntretella", a couple of blocks away in Salita S. Anna di Palazzo.
Nevertheless, the best pizza I had was at a pizzeria which does not really look like a place you would expect much. 'Pizzeria D'Angeli' is a restaurant, that looks more like a fast food than a traditional Italian restaurant. It is a very modern, bright colored place with floor-to-ceiling windows. We got the best marinara pizza ever and a delicious salami pizza.
We got in 'Pizzeria D'Angeli' accidentally, and the story goes like this: we decided to visit the famous 'L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele' in Via Cesare Sersale.
This restaurant, which has been in the same location since 1930 and is run by a family whose pizza heritage goes back to 1870, is supposed to be known for making the best pizza in Napoli and is a point of pilgrimage for pizza lovers around the world. What I believe?
The pizzeria of course has always been a famous pizzeria in Napoli, but since it was featured in the bestselling travel memoir 'Eat Pray Love' by Elizabeth Gilbert it turned in one of those tourist traps. “I love my pizza so much,” author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote on her visit to the restaurant, where she ordered a margherita with double mozzarella, “that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair.” The pizzeria also featured in the film based on the book, in which Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, can be seen mumbling the same lines in between bites of the classic Neapolitan dish. After the huge publicity it received, the 'Pizzeria da Michele' opened branches in London, Barcelona, Roma, Firenze, Milano, Fukuoka and Tokyo… and soon it will arrive in your neighborhood! It is business after all!
When we arrived, even though it was late afternoon, at a time people usually do not have lunch, there was a line of people coming out of the front door. I pushed people so I can have a look inside. I saw a very crowded place with tables in contact to each other, people trying hard to eat their pizza without having to throw the tomato sauce all over the unknown person sitting next to them! Well Julia, you can have your pizza here anytime you want… but not me, thank you.
We were really hungry. We looked around and show pizzeria D'Angeli. And what a surprise: the most delicious pizza we had all that week in Napoli.
Thank you Michele, thank you Elizabeth, thank you Julia.
As I said earlier, I am sure there is not a place in Napoli where they do not serve good pizza. Here are some more famous pizzerias you may want to visit:
'50 Kalò', Ciro Salvo’s restaurant, located in the Chiaia region (close to Mergellina e porto di Sannazaro), is one of the most famous pizzerias in Napoli.
'Pizzeria Brandi', located just off famous Via Chiaia, is where supposed pizza Margherita to be “invented”!
'Pizzeria Tutino dal 1935', located just opposite Circumvesuviana train station, in the fish market of Porta Nolana. This is a very old restaurant, which has recently gone thru a thorough facelift to meet modern standards.
'Pizzeria Sandropizzettata' is located in Via Francesco Solimena at the upscale neighborhood of Vomero.
'Pizzeria Da Attilio', located close to Piazza Carita, in the very picturesque and must visit neighborhood of Montesanto.
'Pizzeria Dal Presidente' is located in Via dei Tribunali, at the heart of the medieval part of the city, which is a must for the tourists street. Take one of the tables on Piazza Gerolomini and enjoy the pictures of the famous who had pizza here. You can see them depicted on the paper sous-plats.
‘Napoli Pizza Village’ festival
Neapolitans value pizza so much that they have a special festival taking place every year dedicated to the pizza culture. The popular festival ‘Napoli Pizza Village’ is an ambitious project that grows year after year and aspires to globally promote one of the symbols par excellence of Italianism all over the world: pizza.
This year, from 1 to 10 June 2018, they organized the eighth festival, which took place at Lungomare Caracciolo.
Pizzeria D'Angeli is located just next to '1947 Pizza Fritta', a famous restaurant, where you can taste the other exclusive delicacy of Napoli: fried pizza or 'pizza fritta' in italian.
This restaurant serves also other famous Neapolitan street food: cuoppi and fritti (frittura vegeteriana, alici fritte, frittatine, arancini, crocche, fiori di zucca, mozzarella in carozza, etc.).
Pizza fritta (or deep-fried pizza) is a dish consisting of a pizza that instead of being baked in an oven is deep-fried, resulting in a different flavor and nutritional profile. Originated in Napoli, pizza fritta is usually made by frying a disk of pizza dough before applying toppings and serving. Alternatively, the fillings may be enclosed in a pocket of dough like a calzone. Frying allows one to prepare a pizza without a pizza oven, for example from a street food cart where an oven is impractical.
Pizza fritta is served in most pizzerias, but it is mainly a cheap and tasty street food.
Pizza fritta has one of the leading roles in Vittorio De Sica’s 1954 movie, ‘L’ Oro di Napoli’. In episode No 2 (of a total of 6 episodes) called ‘pizzas on credit’ (‘pizze a credito’), Donna Sofia (played by Sofia Loren) works with her husband Rosario in a very small ‘friggitoria’. The story goes like this: she is so beautiful that every man secretly loves her and this makes Rosario very jealous. One day, the accidental loss of her precious engagement ring gives way to a series of paradox situations, since it’s possible that the jewel has fallen in the dough of one of the pizzas already sold.
In the film, stunning Loren shows some skills flouring and stretching dough into modest discs and dropping them in a cauldron of hot oil. This particular scene goes on for three or four minutes. Eventually, the camera pans to a young, good-looking Italian sitting on a street cart. He is eating pizza and smiling like a love-struck fool. Loren blushes, runs her fingers across her chest, touches her hair, smiles back. But here’s what Loren and the viewers and anybody who hasn’t eat pizza fritta don’t know: He wasn’t smiling at the goddess before him; he was smiling at the golden discs of pleasure she was peddling.
At the restaurant ‘pizze fritte - friggitoria don vittorio’ located at Piazzetta Nilo, one can see pictures of Sofia Loren as Donna Sofia in De Sica’s film.
There are many different types of fried pizza in Napoli, but the following four are the most known:
‘Zeppola’, also known as ‘pasta cresciuta’, is the simplest type of fried pizza. It is quite small and is prepared by frying for a short time a little piece of dough, made with flour, water and yeast. The only seasoning is salt. Together with the ‘crocchè’, it is one of the most classic street foods in Napoli.
The classic fried pizza is just a larger version of a zeppola, and shares the same ingredients with it. Its dough is usually flattened by hand before frying. Once again, the only seasoning is salt.
‘Montanara’ is much more elaborate than the classic fried pizza. The main differences are two: the first is that it’s flavored with tomato, provola cheese, parmesan and basil; and the second difference is the slightly different cooking procedure _once its dough is fried, its cooking continues in the oven.
‘Calzone fritto’. The stuffed fried pizza is also known as ‘calzone fritto’ (fried ‘calzone’). Its dough is flattened by hand, garnished and folded. This sort of ‘pouch’ is then fried and served. The most typical calzone fritto is filled with just ricotta cheese and flavored with black pepper, but of course, only imagination limits the ingredients one can put in there.
I had the best montanara at ‘Gennaro Salvo Pizza a Portafoglio’, at the beginning of the famous pedestrian street Via Toledo, just two blocks further north from the other famous pizza fritta take away shop, ‘Antica Pizza Fritta da Zia Esterina Sorbillo’. We did not have any pizza from Zia Esterina because the lines were always long. Esterina is Gino Sorbillo’s beloved aunt. But, who is Gino?
Gino Sorbillo is considered Naples's best pizza maker. Gino's father was number nineteen of 21 siblings who were all pizza-makers, along with his parents. No surprise, Gino decided to become also a pizzaiolo.
Number 32 on Via dei Tribunali is home to 'La Pizzeria Sorbillo', maybe the most famous pizzeria in Napoli. Each pizza is named after one of Gino's siblings and various family members, from Ciro, one of his uncles, to Esterina, Gino's beloved aunt.
Pizza-master Gino Sorbillo has garnered a long list of awards and when he's not flipping dough, Gino is traveling around the world making appearances on cooking shows, explaining his ethos on perfecting pizza napolitana. To put it in other words, Gino is a celebrity. Gino is somehow a hero for the pizzaioli as he is responsible for changing the perception of the pizzaiolo from a second-rate cook into a deeply-respected position and has managed to elevate pizza into a highly-respected cuisine.
The success of his restaurant and the number of people it attracts have been great catalysts for the neighborhood's rebirth. Sorbillo has brought thousands of tourists to the neighborhood and employs many people. This renewed interest in the area has also prompted other shops to open along Via dei Tribunali to serve the growing influx. Today Via Tribunali is one of the most visited streets by tourists, as well as locals.
But, we are in Napoli and you have to play fair with the Camorra. Gino’s restaurant was burned down by the Camorra some years ago. They say the reason is that Gino refused to pay the pizzo, the percentage that organized crime asks businesses operating in their area to pay to be protected. But, who knows what the truth is!
I didn’t have pizza at Sorbillo's. As I explained earlier I am freaking out when I see people line up waiting for a table. I’d rather starve.
More than just pizza
Cucina di Napoli is not only pizza. It is much more. You certainly cannot taste many dishes during a short visit in Napoli, but try at least these:
'Parmigiana Di Melenzane'. All the flavors of the region layered one upon the other; fried eggplant, tomato sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan and basil. The dish has spread throughout Italy and the world, but you should try it here where it started and where the ingredients have a deep flavor enhanced by the volcanic soil.
'Pasta E Fagioli'. This is the best dish of what we call ‘cucina povera’. Two items that can stretch a dish to feed more on less, beans and pasta, combine to make one of the most famous dishes of Napoli. The pasta with beans is delicious and very nutritious as well! There are other variations of this dish using chickpeas or lentils instead of beans. We refer as ‘cucina povera’, dishes originally cooked by the peasants who, with a few fresh, natural ingredients (produced by themselves), they could feed their families with something genuine and extremely good.
‘Pasta Gragnano and Ragù'. This is a long cooked ragù (sauce) made with small pieces of meat and dried pasta from Gragnano, the town near Napoli famous for its dried pasta. This classic Neapolitan dish is the most known condiment and much appreciated in Campania, but it is not eaten much in everyday life because of his long preparation. What makes this dish so tasty is the use of multiple types of meat: beef, pork, veal and chanterelles. The tomato is the other inevitable ingredient of this ancient Neapolitan recipe, which characterizes and makes recognizable Mediterranean dishes.
'Gnocchi alla Sorrentina'. A much-loved dish in all over of Italy. Gnocchi made in the Sorrento style, are fluffy potato “knuckles” that float in a sweet tomato sauce and surrounded by melted mozzarella. A divine use of potatoes and cheese!
‘Cozze’. Mussels is a must when visiting Napoli. Try them ‘alla marinara’, cooked in a tomato sauce spiced up a bit with peperoncini and parsley and served on toasted bread to absorb all the juices. Impepata di Cozze (mussels cooked in their own juices with black pepper) is also another good choice.
‘Polpette’. Meatballs are a Neapolitan specialty, but unfortunately, they are not served on top of spaghetti, which is my favorite dish. They are served as a secondo (main course) in tomato sauce.
‘Mozzarella di Bufala’. This is not a dish per se, but fresh, tasty and appetizing, there is nothing like the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana PDO. A soft cheese, typical from the Campania region, where the buffalos are raised in a natural way. Its delicious taste is closely linked to the history and culinary traditions of Southern Italy. Its taste will bring in your mind bucolic images.
Babà, is the most prominent dessert is Napoli. This phallus-shaped (officially it is mushroom-shaped) yeast cake, soaked in a syrup of liquor has taken Napoli.
Babà has its roots in Poland and named after Ali Baba. The classic version is served plain and soaked in a rum, strega, or limoncello-based syrup, but you can also find them sliced and filled with pastry cream, ricotta cream, whipped cream and fruit (mainly strawberries), lemon cream or Nutella. Nothing is more typical Neapolitan than the mythical and delicious "Babà" and you absolutely have to try it.
In the late 18th century, Maria Carolina of Austria, the Queen of Napoli and wife of Ferdinand I, sent Neapolitan chefs to her sister Marie Antoinette in Paris to learn the techniques of French cooking. As a result, many dishes that today are considered fundamental to Neapolitan cuisine have their origins in France. Babà is one of these dishes, which in Napoli took its characteristic shape and brought to perfection: it is soft, light, perfectly moist with a light brownish crust on the outside and can satisfy the most discerning palate with its strong and intense taste.
The latest years, a new version emerged that you can eat with a fork while watching the shops in Via Toledo. They put a sliced baba, or several tiny ones in a tall plastic glass and filled it with gelato, whipped cream or fruit. It is a new madness that shows the creativity of the Neapolitan cuisine.
Fun fact: if you say to someone “si nu' babbà” (you are a baba), you’re complimenting this person in one of the sweetest ways possible.
You can taste the babà in every café or pasticceria and of course as a street delicacy. Try Sfogliatelle Mary at Galleria Umberto I (Via Toledo), Pasticceria Scaturchio, where they invented the “babà Vesuvio“, Sfogliatelle Attanasio at the Central Station, Capriccio Pasticceria in Via Carbonara or have it in style at Gran Caffè Gambrinus.
Sfogliatella. The only other dessert that can rival babà in popularity is Sfogliatella, which can be eaten at any time: breakfast, coffee after lunch and for a snack.
In Neapolitan cuisine, there are two kinds of the pastry: "sfogliatella riccia" ("curly") which is a clam shaped pastry made of flaky dough and "sfogliatella frolla," a less labor-intensive pastry that uses a shortcrust dough and does not form the riccia’s characteristic layers (it has a smooth exterior). In both types, the pastry is typically filled with a sweetened ricotta (more rarely almond) paste and candied citrus fruit and topped with powdered sugar. Between the flakes of pastry and the sugar, don’t plan on staying clean while you eat it. Sample, sample, and sample some more while you’re there. Every single café and pasticceria sells sfogliatelle.
Pastiera, is a shortcrust pastry filled with eggs, ricotta cheese, boiled grains of wheat, custard, candied fruit, and aromatics (including orange flower water), topped with a lattice made from the same pastry.
Like the Proustian madeleine, sweets can stir up all kinds of feelings in the minds of those who eat them. In Napoli, struffoli (small, round doughnuts glazed with honey) and cassata (sponge cake with ricotta and candied fruit) speak of Christmas, while chiacchiere (sugar-dusted fritters) and sanguinaccio (literally "blood pudding”, but actually made of chocolate) bring to mind Carnevale. And then there's pastiera, whose very scent and taste make us think of Easter and spring. These days, pastiera can be made all year long, not only when the wheat has just sprouted, as was the case in the past. Yet when Easter approaches, all Neapolitans dream of this cake. Pastiera is the queen of Neapolitan sweets, even if its composition is relatively simple.
The modern pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent. An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the Resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.
The pastiera has to be cooked some days in advance, no later than Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, in order to allow the fragrances to mix properly and result in that unique flavor. The Pastiera is not only cooked but also sold and served in appropriate pans called "ruoti" because it is very fragile, so it would easily crumble up if removed from the "ruoto".
Delizie Al Limone. Delicious lemon flavors are in every part of this dessert. Pan di Spagna soaked with lemon or limoncello simple syrup, lemon pastry cream or a combination of lemon curd and pastry cream (depending on the pastry shop) is the filling, and then the cake is iced with a lemon infused whipped cream. More an Amalfi Coast dessert, showcasing the famous lemons of that area.
Lemonade. As Italians say “Dulcis in Fundo” (a pseudo-Latin expression that, in the ear of an Italian speaker, means "the dessert comes at the end of lunch"). Traditional lemonade is made with only lemons, water and sugar. It tastes like a delicate cream and it the best refreshment you could ever get on a hot day in the Neapolitan summer. Sold mainly by street vendors.
Torta Ricotta e Pera. Also from the Amalfi coast, ricotta cream with bites of poached pears is sandwiched between two layers of almond and hazelnut biscotti or Dacquoise, depending on the pastry shop. Dusted with powdered sugar to ensure you make a big mess of yourself when biting through the hard cookie to get to the sweet and creamy center. Like sfogliatella, it’s worth the mess.
Torta Caprese. This is a dark chocolate, flourless cake. It’s rich, dense and has a slight almond flavoring from the chopped almonds in the cake. Always topped with powdered sugar, some pastry shops also add shards of chocolate or a layer of rich ganache for a truly decadent dessert.
Sfoglia Campanella. In Napoli there’s always something new to try, as bakers definitely like to spoil us. Because two sfogliatella versions weren’t enough, Vincenzo Ferrieri of Sfogliatelab pastry shop (at Piazza Garibaldi, opposite the Central Station) has invented a new variation on the theme that has immediately gone viral.
This pastry is called “sfogliacampanella“, because it looks like a little bell, with the same crispy outside of the sfogliatella riccia. Yet this one is filled with a tiny babà, enveloped in creamy white or dark chocolate, and some ricotta cheese cream. It’s an explosion of flavors that you just won’t forget.
Caffè. Even if it’s not a proper dish, Neapolitan coffee has to be tried at least once. In Napoli drinking caffè is an important ritual. The cup has to be very, very hot, because it is believed that the warmth it enhances the aroma of the coffee. The espresso is always served with a glass of water that you have to drink before the coffee. Real Neapolitan espresso can be particularly strong if you’re not used to it! Italians go to Napoli for an espresso as the bar culture is one of the best in all of Italy. If you want to order your coffee like a local, be part of the “caffè sospeso” (suspended/pending coffee) tradition: order two coffees instead of just one to receive and consume only one, leaving the other one to a totally stranger person coming after you.
The traditional Neapolitan flip coffee pot, known as the cuccuma or cuccumella or napoletana, was the basis for the invention of the espresso machine, and also inspired the Moka pot. Moka pot is the classic Italian stove top espresso maker invented by the engineer Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 and Bialetti Industrie continues to produce the same model under the name "Moka Express". The napoletana is claimed to have been invented in 1819 by a Frenchman named Morize. The reason for taking its name from the city of Napoli is unknown.
Unlike a moka express, a napoletana does not use the pressure of steam to force the water through the coffee, relying instead on gravity. It consists of a bottom section filled with water, a filter section in the middle filled with finely ground coffee, and an upside-down pot placed on the top. When the water boils, the entire three-part coffee maker is flipped over to let the water filter through the coffee grounds. Once the water has dripped through the grounds, the water-boiling and filter sections are removed, and the coffee is served from the remaining pot. If coarse grounds are used, the coffee is brewed quite mildly. Using very finely ground coffee in the "Neapolitan" style, this method can produce a coffee that has a stronger flavor than an automatic drip brew maker.
Southern Italian Riccardo Dalisi redesigned this classic for Alessi. He began his research in 1979 and earned international attention when his design entered into production in 1987. As they have come back to gain some popularity, Ilsa now also makes them in stainless steel.
In Napoli there is one of the (supposed) 10 best cafés in Italy. Located between the impressive piazza del Plebiscito and pedestrianized via Chiaia, it’s impossible to miss the Gran Caffè Gambrinus. This historical café was opened in 1860 and it was an immediate success. During the Belle Epoque its golden rooms were filled with artists and writers who gathered there to attend the Cafè Chantant (live concerts famous among the nobles). The Gambrinus was so open minded and liberal that during the Fascist era it was closed, deemed too dangerous for the regime. It was luckily reopened right after the war, to give back to Naples its most iconic cafè. The Gambrinus is one of the spots in Napoli where you can easily meet actors, celebrities, politicians and intellectuals. Totò, the De Filippo brothers, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre and many others have been drinking espresso and eating gelato or sfogliatella at Gambrinus. Stepping inside this illustrious cafè will make you feel like walking into another era. Besides the glamorous rooms, where you see mostly Japanese tourists, there is a nice outdoor place with white metal chairs and tables, where you can sit and enjoy people pass by. The service is slow, the prices are high, but it is the best spot in town to watch boisterous, noisy Neapolitans as actors in this huge theatrical scene called Napoli.
The first Italian musical in color, ‘Carosello Napoletano’, a film from 1954, signed by the director Ettore Giannini includes a multitude of great actors and singers, including a very young Sophia Loren, Giacomo Rondinella and Paolo Stoppa. Among the most beautiful and touching scenes of the film is the one that takes place in front of the terrace of the historic Cafe Gambrinus (not the real thing, but a studio shooting). Sitting comfortably at the table appears a large wealthy family ready to enjoy inviting and tasty-looking ice cream, their children in particular, all rigidly dressed as a sailor, ready to lick it voluptuously. Behind them, the members of the poor family of Paolo Stoppa, who look equally satisfied by just looking at the other family enjoying the ice-cream (!). In the meanwhile, singers and dancers amuse the passers-by, artists paint, boys polish the shoes of pretentious gentlemen, while ramshackle and luxurious carts cars parade along the way.